In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…
Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012
I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.
When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.
I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.
A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.
Opening lines of “Tickets on Time” by Marcel Aymé (translated by Sophie Lewis)
Another story by Marcel Aymé. In this one, “La Carte” in French, the reader must accept the assumption of time-rationing. It’s like food rationing in wartime, and indeed the story is set during the occupation of France in the early 1940s. But now the consumer is forced to ration his time, having the right to only a certain number of days per month, and will be temporarily put to death according to his entitlement. Aymé makes mischievous fun of his own profession as a writer: his main character, Jules Flegmon, is horrified that writers have been lumped together with painters, sculptors and musicians as consumers decreed to be unproductive for the State and returning less than their upkeep.
Aymé’s fictitious character died for 15 days each month. But the real writer Marcel Aymé lived every day of his life until he died in 1967. He lived in Montmartre and has a Place named after him (see header photo of the Place Marcel Aymé), and he’s buried in Montmartre where his character Jules Flegmon lived, died and lived until the decree was abolished.
There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.
Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.
My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.
Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.
Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:
At dusk they pour from the sky.
The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.
It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!
Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons
Some years ago I scanned hundreds of photos from an album my father brought back from the Middle East in 1942. The original snaps are small, about 2″ x 3″, so I’m fascinated by the detail I now see in these scanned and enlarged photos, such as the people on the right in the image above. The caption for this picture says “Col. Gee, Syria”. Nothing about the other guy. However, it’s uncertain whether it was taken in Syria or Lebanon. The photo below, the ski school for the soldiers, is marked as located in Syria when in fact it was in Lebanon.
Easy mistake to make, since the Australian soldiers were sent to train in Syria in the winter of 1941/42, but from there they went to Lebanon to train to fight in snow country. A disused chalet near Bcharre in the Lebanon ranges was turned into a ski school. It was pretty hard on the Australians, used to extreme heat but not extreme cold.
So much snow. The magnificent cedars of Lebanon form the only contrast in this black and white image.
A reader of this blog, a maritime archaeologist writing a PhD, expressed an interest in some of the photos I’ve posted here over the past five years, especially images of the Nile and its boats. So this post is about the Nile River, Egypt, in a particular period, 1941/42. The photos are from my father’s album, from a time he was stationed there for seven months with the army (not counting the couple of months to get there and back). He took photos and swapped photos with his mates, stuck them in an album and left them for his family to do what they wanted with them. Many of these photos have been on this blog before, with a couple of exceptions. Where there were captions beneath the photos in the album, I’ll repeat them. Where there was none, I’ll write what I know, if I know anything. The photographers of these photos are unknown. Some were taken by my father, some were not. I don’t know which is which.
I love all my black and white 1940s photos, but I totally love the feluccas and never tire of looking photos of them. Thanks, my reader, for asking me to take another glimpse into 1940s Nile history.
This week’s WordPress photo challenge title is The Road Taken, which is not the road taken by the poet Robert Frost in his poem, The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and Frost made a decision to take the grassy road, the one that wanted wear, the one less travelled by. Ages from then, he told how the road taken had made all the difference. The poem’s title is a careful play on its message – The Road Not Taken, for him, is the one everyone else took.
Here’s an image of a road taken in Israel, a road where no grass grows, where tarmacadam has been laid to avoid the mess of wheel ruts. The photo is from my father’s war album; he called it “Point duty Tel Aviv”. This traffic cop is a living traffic light, bang in the centre of converging roads, with only his arms and two painted arrows to give people direction. Clearly it’s a road that needs some form of traffic control, and indeed the officer seems to be looking at something coming his way.
Still in Israel, here’s a road that’s long and winding. The Road of the Seven Sisters was constructed during the time of the British Mandate of Palestine (1920-1948), and apparently there are seven bends in the road, though many disagree. I’ve read it’s hairy to drive it, but, at the time, it was the only approach for cars coming to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. It looks quite bleak in this black and white image but recent colour photos show vegetation now softening the roadsides.
(The photographer might have been my father or it might have been a friend; soldiers commonly swapped photos.)
Unlike Robert Frost, it’s not often I find myself in a wood, and even less often in a yellow wood here in a country where native forests are perpetually green. But if I did, and if I came to a fork in its road, I would not take a path if it needed traffic control, or if it were a steep winding road of hairy hairpin bends built for army vehicles. Like Frost I would go where no one else that day had trod.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
If The Road Not Taken is new to you, take a brief moment to read it. It’s in many places online, here for example.
It is said that the department store Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co. was often nicknamed Right-away & Paid-for, since they accepted only cash and offered no credit. It was also known simply as Whiteaways and became a household name in India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai during the first half of the 20th century, as well as in other British colonised cities like Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, seen here in these wartime photos.
The store was founded by a Scotsman, Robert Laidlaw, in 1882 after he had lived in India for 20 years. He was not just an entrepreneur but also a philanthropist and British politician. He died in 1915 in London, but his emporium continued until 1962. It imported and sold household goods and was also a tailoring business, selling products that appealed to Europeans and wealthy locals. As advertised on the store sign in Mombasa, they were drapers and “Complete Outfitters”.
Kenya was then a British colony engaged in defending itself against Italian Ethiopia (created in 1936) on its northern border. Kenya herself contributed a great number of men to fight for the British colonial Military: the King’s African Rifles. The Italians were defeated in November 1941 during my father’s period in North Africa. Hence these photos in his album.
I’ve been looking at these old photos since I was a small small child and have often wondered why two photos feature the same franchise of Whiteaways. Perhaps my father bought some outfits here. Apparently the store catered for shoppers with a small purse, which would therefore have attracted soldiers. Thanks to WordPress for challenging me to find out who Whiteaway Laidlaw were.
Any image of a tram makes me long for the past. When I was a child in Brisbane there were trams in the city, but by 1969 the use and support of trams had declined and the tramway was closed. It had been operating since 1885.
(An aside: In case you’re wondering about Vincent’s, they were powders for headaches, wrapped in paper. You poured the powder into your mouth and washed it down with water. My father took them daily. They were withdrawn from the market in the 1970s because they were causing renal failure and codeine addiction. So he shouldn’t have taken them with confidence after all.)
These days in Australia, only Adelaide and Melbourne still have trams. Melbourne is famous for them, and whenever I’m there I catch them just for the fun of it.
When I lived in Lyon, France, I often got around on trams, enjoying the ease of hopping on and off without having to climb stairs or walk down the aisle in search of a seat, as you do on a bus or a train, and without having to descend into the subterranean metro stations.
At present in Canberra, a light rail system (tramway) is under construction, but there’s a heated debate about the expense of it and disputes about the benefits. A local election in a couple of weeks will determine whether the project continues. And if The Opposition wins, it will stop the construction and cancel the contracts for which numbers of people have been employed. Hmmm.
But despite the arguments against our tram project, my nostalgia-filled heart is firing up memories of tram trips taken, of the fun of travelling on these little street trains, of waiting at the tram stops with my mother or father, or by myself in Lyon, holding my ticket nervously purchased in much-practised French, and being transported quickly and efficiently to my destination. So, rationally or not, I’m pro tram.
This 1941 photo of a tram in Port Said, perhaps waiting for the Australian soldiers to jump on board, gives me a little thrill every time I look at it. I wish it could teleport into my life so I could ride on it.
Two photos from the old war album. The captions are as I found them, written by my father. The photographer is unknown: they might be my father’s photos, or they might have been given to him by a mate.
The “Nile Bridge” is the Abou el Ela Bridge, Cairo – construction completed in 1912, demolished in 1998
Thanks WordPress for prompting me to post photos of framed shots.